A while back my group got to the end of a campaign I was running and I was 4 steps beyond GM burnout. Deciding that no one wanted to pick up a new campaign of a couple of months, and deciding that we didn’t want to do a string of one shots, we bandied about many ideas for what we wanted to do. Finally, someone suggested we take turns. I suggested we make use of published adventures or the like until higher levels. Everyone agreed we should take a crack at rotating Game Masters and we started in on our troupe style game. This was something we had looked at before, but never implemented because of the games we were running and our time commitments. At that time Walt and I wrote a double header about this subject, and you can find Walt’s article on Collaborative Game Mastering here while mine on how I thought it would go here. With a little experience with it under my belt, I wanted to share how it has been working.
So what exactly is a troupe style game? According to our friend Wikipedia, Troupe Style GMing is:
Easy enough, but why exactly run one? Why do it? There were quite a few reasons we bandied about. There were also some issues we highlighted with the approach.
- Prevents Game Master Burnout – By moving the Game Master hat from a person after a set time, they don’t spend all their time on the extra work it takes to run a game. They get to sit in the players chair after a preset time and experience the game as well. That way everyone gets a turn.
- Gets More People GMing – I’m always a fan of getting more people into the GMs chair. It is something that I think everyone should give a try at least once in their gaming career.
- You Get To Try Different Styles of GMing – Every GM has their own style of GMing. Having every player take a turn lets you see how your friends GM. While you might play dungeon-crawly D&D as your de-facto game, someone else might emphasize other areas of the same game. Depending on how your group approaches Troupe Style GMing, you might try other games or very different variations of the same game.
- If You Are The Group’s Primary GM, You Get To Play For A While – Having others take the GMs reigns means that a group’s primary GM gets to have fun playing.
- New Game Masters May Mean You Get To Try New Character Concepts – Once again, this is highly dependant on how you decide to run a Troupe Style Game, but the possibility to switch out characters becomes a lot easier as you switch out GMs.
- Changing Styles & Rules Interpretations– Player A builds his character to handle a certain style of game that the current Game Master is running. The Game Master switches out, and player A’s diplomacy build is suddenly much less useful. Another issue in this same vein is that a Game Master’s interpretation of the rules may be different from the previous Game Master’s. This is likely the biggest issue most groups will face when attempting Troupe Style GMing.
- Crap Games – Some people aren’t geared towards running a game, and forcing a person into that role can create some unenjoyable games. This happened in ours and we decided to switch GMs mid-adventure at the request of the GM who was currently running and doing poorly.
- Lack Of Interest – Tying into the previous point, some players will just not want to be the Game Master. This was the case with our bad game. The person doing it was doing it to fulfill his obligation and wasn’t highly interested, so the game suffered not from lack of GMing ability but lack of interest.
- The GMs PC Has To Be Dealt With – While the player taking turn as Game Master is running the game something has to be done with their character. They can still play it as a normal character, play it as a character that is only partially invested in the game, or remove it from the game for the duration of their stint as the GM.
There are many more pros and cons that I can think to Troupe Style games, but the one point that sticks in my mind as I review them is that they tend to resolve around what happens when you switch out. A lot of that will be dealt with by how you decide to run the troupe style game. There are a lot of ways you could do it.
- Multiple GMs Running Multiple Unrelated Adventures In Different Systems Whenever the Game Master switches they run a completely different game. This lets you experience many different games and styles but also means you have to create new characters and learn new games as each GM switches. This may or may not be a problem, it all depends on perspective.
- Multiple GMs Running Multiple Unrelated Adventures In The Same System
Whenever the Game Master switches they run an adventure of their own within the same system and usually the same characters. This could be a home brewed or published adventure. This is mostly how my current group is operating, but their is some crossover to the next style.
- Multiple GMs Running Different Parts Of A Story Arc in a Long Campaign
Whenever the Game Master switches they pick up from the place where the previous GM left off. Changes within the story and style will likely occur, but there is one over-arching story the players are interacting with. This can cause some confusion with the change of how certain NPCs or elements are portrayed, but it can be entertaining to see how these things shift as a new person takes over.
- Multiple GMs Undertaking Different Roles
I discovered an interesting article on this here. I would highly suggest a read of that article. It outlines a system by which multiple people undertake different roles of the Game Master. I can already see a system like this at work in most gaming. Those more knowledgeable about certain rules-sets chime in and help out with the Game Engine roll, but final authority is still given to a central GM. In the system outlined here that isn’t necessarily the case.
My Group’s Take On Troupe Style GMing And The Most Important Tool We Have
When my group decided to take this method of GMing on, we had a LOT of ideas buzzing about. One player/GM wanted us to pick up an old Eberron campaign so he could revisit his higher level character. Another wanted to play from level 1 and go all the way to 20. Another mentioned wanting to step away from D&D (and fantasy gaming in general) every so often and visit a Shadowrun game he had in mind. Another player/GM wanted to try out a published adventure that spanned a few levels. It was a fair amount of controlled and polite chaos.
We eventually decided to incorporate as many ideas as we could. We began with the people newest to running games as the first GMs. This let them try things out at lower levels where more complex powers didn’t exist and where less cumbersome GMing situations are likely to occur. We wanted to get 2 people GMing until about level 4 or so, and decided a published adventure would be the easiest. I had incorporated elements of Dungeonaday.com into a fantasy game that veers far away from the structured elements of D&D and favors more cinematic play. People mentioned wanting to try it in actual D&D. We decided to play through the first few levels, until we reached 4th, and then switch over to another published adventure and Game Master. We would play that through and keep GMs the same until the published adventure ended. After that someone else would take over with another published adventure or we would play some freeform higher level stuff out.
Currently, we are at level 6 and about halfway through the published adventure. Everything has been going really well, with a not unexpected snag or two along the way. Nothing insurmountable has come up, but we took some precautions and made sure we were all on the same page to begin with. We did one VERY IMPORTANT thing to ensure much of this ease and stability.
The most important thing we did was to write down all of our agreed upon group rules and assumptions in a Gaming Charter.
A Gaming Charter is like a Social Contract, but in my opinion much more useful. While the concept is similar, the term Gaming Charter conveys a much more codified set of rules about how the game is played than a Social Contract (which covers various social assumptions about the group and is frequently encouraged not to be written down). The Gnomes have some great articles about Social Contracts and Gaming Charters (a newer term) that I’ll point you to for a more in-depth discussion:
So, what is our game charter like? Well we decided we needed to address the idea of what rules we wanted to remain constant during the changing of the guards. We also wanted to make sure we were on the same page about assumptions for how the game would go under each GMs hands. Since we are a fairly forgetful lot we decided writing it down was a very important step. We weren’t going to put in the social assumptions that are attached to most social contracts and focused more on rules implementations and assumptions about how we would interpret rules. Some of it probably doesn’t need to be in there, but having it written down and agreed upon keeps it consistent. We shared it out with google docs, and use the same file to keep our party loot and other important information. Since nothing in here can incriminate us, and all the bodies have been looted and disposed of, I’ve decided to share the document here with you. We keep this information in an excel spreadsheet, but in the interest of maximum viewability I’ve converted it into a 1 page PDF and removed the names of the guilty. Check it out and see how we organized things.
Overall I’ve really enjoyed playing in the different iterations of the game that various GMs have run. While I was suffering from GM burnout beforehand, I definitely feel better now. My turn isn’t scheduled to come up till much later, but I don’t think I would mind doing it now (only a few months in) knowing that someone will take over and I won’t get stuck running for another year or so. All in all it has been a great experience. I’m very curious to hear from other people who have done something like this.
So what have your experiences with switching GMS been like? Any advice that I’ve missed or any tricks that have worked well? What do you think of the idea of a Game Charter (something I most assuredly didn’t create but have found great use from)?